Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

“There’s a story going on here that people in England don’t know about,” says Henry McLeish. I am talking to the former Scotland first minister in Glasgow’s George Square, outside the “Kremlin”, the stately building that houses the city’s leftwing council. Scotland has always been more bolshie than Bolshevik but McLeish believes its identity is experiencing a quiet revolution. I have returned home for the week to find out more.

I say “home”. I was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland’s genteel capital, which, according to David Bowman, a man I meet in Kelty, a once thriving Fife mining town, “is basically England”. This is bogus. But, university holidays aside, I have not lived north of the border for 13 years. In September, my England-born parents will cast their votes in the referendum on Scottish independence.

I am an electoral orphan; only residents of Scotland are enfranchised. The arguments for this arrangement are practically convincing but personally wrenching. As I drive haphazardly around the country, I have a wee moan. What about the years I’ve put in? The memories? Do my hopes of living here again count for nothing? All that whisky? Damn it: I am Scottish.

Such sentiment is irrelevant. The closed voting criterion fits the Scottish National party’s effort to foster what McLeish calls an “open nationalism”. In the 20th century, modern nationalism was based on ethnicity and language. In 21st-century Scotland, nationalism is an incongruous mix of the pre- and postmodern. Visiting the new Bannockburn memorial, which celebrates Scotland’s defeat of England in 1314, I remember the Braveheart poster on my teenage bedroom wall. The battlefield sight is a windy reminder that legend blows through many Scots’ sense of self.

Refreshingly, contemporary Scottish artists are busy rejecting Tartan-covered stereotypes and re-examining ideas of belonging and nationhood. Many cultural types, such as the writers Irvine Welsh, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, are supporters of independence but not always of the SNP – a reminder that the two sentiments are not necessarily synonymous. At the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh I meet dramatists involved in “Dear Scotland”, a programme organised by the National Theatre of Scotland. David Greig, a playwright, tells me how Scottish identity is increasingly “fragmented”. There is no one Scottishness, he says.

Later in the week I watch a rehearsal of Rantin, a “21st-century ceilidh play” by Kieran Hurley. The set is strewn with motifs, including a Trainspotting DVD and, aye, a bottle of Irn-Bru. The cast’s honeyed songs reverberate in the caverns of Glasgow’s Arches. The Scotland of Rantin is a “mongrel nation”, where national identify is slippery and indefinable.

Across Scotland, I detect barely a whisper of the anti-Englishness that I often heard growing up. Xenophobia has tended to be the defining and off-putting feature of nationalism. But Scottish culture has a new confidence. In 2006, the Edinburgh International Festival turned down Black Watch, the fervent and subsequently popular NTS drama about Scottish veterans of the Iraq war, on the grounds it was “too parochial”. I sense the Risorgimento north of the Tweed has banished such timidity and ignorance.

In Perth, I meet Major Ronnie Proctor, a veteran of the real Black Watch. He shows me around the regiment’s museum, which exhibits its contributions at Waterloo, the Crimea, world wars and other conflicts. Outside, we pause in front of two memorial slabs erected to commemorate soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second slab is blank. “There was a time when we thought we would need it,” Proctor says quietly. For him, the British Army is an expression of the abiding pull of union; like many Scots he is proud of what he contributed as part of the UK. Proctor spent a decade in Northern Ireland, flying helicopters and preserving the union. Independence would be “soul-destroying”, he says.

Although the major’s unionism is heartfelt, it is also pragmatic; Proctor worries about his military pension. For all the passions at play in the land of David Hume, there is plenty of reason, too. In Edinburgh, John Curtice, the country’s leading pollster, reminds me that what will ultimately decide the vote is how Scots feel about the economic consequences of independence. More are pessimistic than optimistic, according to polls. This presents a problem for the SNP, one that I hear about on the high street in Clydebank, a former shipbuilding town in the far west. Shoppers are generally sceptical of SNP policies. “I wouldn’t buy a used car from [SNP leader] Alex Salmond, never mind independence,” one tells me.

A week in Scotland reminds me of what George Orwell wrote about patriotism: how it “has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same”. Not only does this neatly capture my own sense of Scottishness but it also hints at the challenge for the SNP – to bridge nostalgia and a vision of the future.

As well as using Scotland’s past – it is probably no coincidence that the referendum will take place in the year of the 700th anniversary celebrations of Bannockburn – the SNP, through its argument that to live in Scotland is all it takes to be Scottish, is also trying to transcend it.

I like the idea of a plural Scottishness but I am unconvinced that independence is the means to that end. If having a referendum vote means having to choose only one identity, then perhaps I don’t envy Scots after all.


John McDermott is an FT commentator

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article